The Technical Development of Architectural Drawing

The Technical Development of Architectural Drawing
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Architecture is a dynamic field that is constantly changing in response to whatever technological advances that are developed during that time. Structures have developed from crude dwellings made out of mud, bricks, and stone up to magnificent and modern buildings that we see today. All of these structures were first conceived in the mind of whoever who built it, and then, put into some sort of material akin to what we now call architectural blueprints.

If we look back in ancient history, the Greeks created magnificent and beautiful structures like the Acropolis probably by first drawing a rough sketch on stone as evident by the construction drawing found at the Temple of Apollo at Didyma in Greece. This ‘construction drawing’ was found in an unfinished stone wall which was etched with the profiles of columns and moldings. Everything changed with the advent of the papyrus by the Egyptians and the rice paper by the Chinese which started drafting ( or the drawing of architectural plans) as we know it.

Nowadays architectural drawings are made using computer-aided design (CAD drawings), Building Information Modeling (BIM), and virtual reality. Modern architectural blueprints are manipulated, stored and shared in real time with team members using a drawing document management software.  Drawing and document management systems also make markups easier.

Let’s take a walk in history and see how architectural drawings developed to what we know it to be today, as well as take a look at the new levels that new technology is bringing architectural drawings to.

 Ancient Period 

The ancient Greeks, together with the Egyptians and Mesopotamians usually built most of their common buildings out of mud brick, but no record has been left behind on how they were built.  Although no record has been left on how they were built, many of the ancient structures survive to this very day, and the Greek temples can be considered the most dramatic. The Ancient Greeks made many advances in technology, in turn, influenced how their buildings were constructed. Some of the notable technology that they built were plumbing, the spiral staircase, central heating, urban planning, the water wheel, and the crane.

The Greeks also left the oldest “construction drawing” at the Temple of Apollo at Didyma. This “drawing” is made of profiles of columns and moldings that was etched into the wall. The wall never reached completion so the drawing was not erased providing us a rare glimpse into the history of working construction drawings.

The ancient Egyptians are credited with inventing the ramp, elver, lathe, oven. The ship, paper, irrigation system, window awning, door, glass, the bath, standardized measurement system, geometry, saw proportional scale drawing, enameling, a veneer to name a few. There are no surviving Egyptian construction drawings that have been discovered so to this day. It was also during this time that Imhotep lived (2650-2600 BC)  and is known as the first recorded architect and engineer.

The Roman Empire, on the other hand, left an enormous amount of information regarding construction with a lot of their ancient structures surviving until today which includes the Pantheon and well-preserved ruins like Pompeii and Herculaneum. They also have the first surviving treatise on architecture by Vitruvius which outlines extensive passages on construction techniques.

Medieval Period

The dark ages or Middle ages of Europe span from the 5th to 15 centuries AD and started from the fall of the Western Roman Empire and ended during the Renaissance. Castles, fortifications and cathedrals were the greatest construction products of this period.

During the middle period, there were no standard textbooks that defined how to build structures. In this time, master craftsmen transferred their knowledge through apprenticeships and from father to son. During this time, parchment was considered too expensive to be commonly used, and paper did not appear until the end of the dark ages. Models were used to design structures and were built too large scales. Details were mostly designed at full size on trading floors.

Despite this, it was also during this period that the blueprint as we know it appeared in its earliest form during the medieval times. The oldest known surviving architectural plan, and is considered by some historians as the beginning of the blueprint as we know it now, is the plan of St. Gall. The plan is considered as the national treasure of Switzerland and has been the object of fascination and intense interest among modern draftsmen, architects and engineers alike because it gave us a rare glimpse into the architectural landscape of the middle ages. The plan was never built, and it got its name because it was kept at the famous medieval monastery library at the Abbey of St. Gall where it still remains until this day.

The plan shows an entire Benedictine monastic compound including churches, houses, stables, kitchen, workshops, brewery, infirmary and even a special house for bloodletting. The plan was created by sewing five parchments together measuring 45 inches by 31 inches and drawn in red ink lines for the buildings and brown ink for the lettered inscriptions.  The plan is drawn to an unusual scale of 1/16 inch to a foot because the plan was built to fit into the limited size of the parchment.


The characters of the structures being built during the Renaissance changed due to the influence of the invention of the moveable type, the reformation and the rediscovery of the writings of Vitruvius – a Roman author, architect, civil engineer, military engineer during the 1st century BC, known for his multi-volume work – De architectura.

The renaissance also signaled the return to classical architecture, but this created problems for Renaissance buildings. The buildings did not use concrete and this became a challenge because vault and domes had to be replicated in brick or stone. This problem was solved with the help of Italian architect and engineer Brunelleschi thru his project – the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore. He managed to devise a way of building a big dome without a framework and relied on the weight of the bricks and the way they were laid to keep the dome standing.

During this time, the drawings that surfaced during this period looked a lot like the modern blueprints as we know it today. The architects of the Renaissance period bought architectural drawings as we know it today, wherein they accurately reproduced the detail of a structure using the tools of scale and perspective which was at that time was a highly intensive and specialized job done by skilled and dedicated draftsmen.

19th and the 20th  Century

The industrial revolution gave rise to new kinds of transportations such as railways, canals, and macadam roads. It also saw the rise of new construction devices like steam engines, machine tools, explosives, and optical surveying. Plumbing appeared and gave common access to drinking water and sewage collection. Building codes with fire safety have been applied to building built during this period. 

It was during this time that John Herschel discovered the cyanotype process which gave rise to what we now know as the blueprint. Using this process, an architectural drawing was made on a semi-transparent paper and then weighed down on top of a sheet of paper or cloth that was coated with a photosensitive mixture of potassium ferricyanide and ferric ammonium citrate. During the final stages, the document was exposed to light. The exposed parts of the background of the drawing become blue, while the drawing lines blocked the coated paper from exposure and remained white.

This period also saw the rise of a variety of chemical and mechanical process for reproducing architectural drawings. It’s during this time that the diazo process replaced the cyanotype ( where the blueprint was printed out of) as the dominant printing process for most of the 20th century. In this process, instead of a blue sheet with white lines, the diazo process produced a white print with blue lines that has come to be known as a white print.

The AIC ( American Institute for Conservation) while conserving the New York Botanical Garden Library collection of drawings found 14 types of processes that basically summarizes the evolution of blueprints in the midcentury. These 14 types are as follows:

  • Aniline prints
  • Cyanotypes
  • Diazotypes
  • Electrostatic prints
  • Ferrogallic prints
  • Gel-lithographs
  • Hectographs, (handmade)
  • Pellet prints
  • Photostats
  • Sepia Prints
  • Silver halide prints
  • Stencil duplicating (mimeographs)
  • Spirit duplicating (hectographs, machine made)
  • Van Dyke prints

21st Century

In the 21st-century Computer Aided Design ( CAD) Technology and large-format printing processes that made the reproduction of multiple accurate copies of the architect’s original design easier than ever.

Computer Aided Design is the use of computer systems to help in the creation, modification, analysis, or optimization of a design. The resulting design is either in 2D or 3D drawings of physical components. Some of the popular software packages that are widely used in CAD designs are Autocad, Catia and Solidworks to name a few.

In concurrent with CAD design, BIM ( Building Information Modelling) is slowly gaining ground in the construction industry. BIM is the management of the physical and functional information of a project. The output of this process is what is referred to as BIM which are digital files that show and describe every aspect of the project. BIM is more than 3d Modelling which involves width height and depth, it also expands to other dimensions such as time (4D),  cost (5D), and as-built operation (6D).

In addition to these, new technology like 3d printing, robotics, and virtual reality have taken construction drawings to a new level and forever changed how architects make construction blueprints.


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